Animal and human kingdoms differ on account of the orderly existence based on rules of conduct for the latter. Otherwise, it will be a jungle raj where the big cats rule the roost. Social order is a negotiated equilibrium, implying that none of the constituents has a right to absolute freedom of any kind. The Indian Constitution guarantees certain fundamental rights, but with certain riders. This applies to the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression as well. But this is no justification to muzzle free media, especially in the largest and most vibrant democracy of the world.
Democracy is all about self-governance. Its success depends on the informed participation of its citizens in public life and developmental efforts. Empowering people with all the necessary facts and figures concerning all aspects of daily life and the functioning of the “state apparatus” holds the key for a free, fair and real democracy. MEDIA should be a Means of Empowerment for Development through Informed Actions. It is critical for any aspirational nation like ours.
Development being a shared goal, harnessing the positive energies of the nation could be a tool.
But then why some restrictions on the freedom of press? During the extensive debates in the Constituent Assembly, one view was for unfettered freedom and the other that nowhere in the world was such freedom absolute. The latter prevailed. The Supreme Court is the ultimate guardian of the fundamental rights of citizens, including the Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a). Press freedom is implied in this constitutional provision. The apex court has been zealously defending freedom of the media over the years in this framework. The settled position is that no restrictions can be imposed on media beyond those applicable to individual citizens. Article 19(2) provides for certain restrictions on free speech in the interest of friendly relations with foreign states, public order, preventing incitement to an offence, sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, decency and morality, contempt of court and defamation. Incidentally, the first three of these restrictions were provisioned by the Constitution (First Amendment) Act, 1951, and the fourth through the 16th Constitution Amendment in 1963. All during the Nehru era.
One’s freedom of speech ends when the other’s begins. This was the view taken by the Privy Council in Channing Arnold v. King Emperor. The Council observed: “The freedom of the journalist is an ordinary part of the freedom of the subject and to whatever length, the subject, in general, may go, so also may the journalist, but apart from statute his privilege is no other and no higher. The range of his (journalist’s) assertions, his criticisms or his comment is as wide as, and no wider than that of any other subject.”
In Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms, the apex court asserted that “one-sided information, disinformation, misinformation and non-information, all equally create an uninformed citizenry which makes democracy a farce. Freedom of speech and expression includes the right to impart and receive information which includes freedom to hold opinions”.
Given the critical role of media in nation building, there is no justification for obstructing access to information and its dissemination. Since the freedom of expression of media flows from constitutional provisions, any additional restriction should flow from an enacted law and not through executive actions. With the form and space of the media being redrawn with technological advances bringing with it new “genuine” challenges, any regulation should stand scrutiny.
India is a vast, diverse and complex society requiring responsible public discourse. An explosive expansion in media is resulting in the trivialisation of content and distorted priorities. This has a huge bearing on time and resources, besides the making of minds as Young India strives to fulfil its aspirations. It is time for a reset so that media could play out its sacred function as the space for the citizen to speak his mind and enrich his thought processes.
For long, the regulation of media has been more a bone of contention between the State and the fourth estate. But no longer, with the huge emergence of new, “privacy invading” forms of media. Any new regulation of content needs to be viewed in this perspective. While the state is a major player in developing societies, the emergence of the “individual” with a certain right to protection of privacy calls for new models of communication with inbuilt security. The reputation of individuals is a valuable asset and privacy is intrinsic to this.
The media has played a stellar role in pre- and post-independent India and shall continue to do so. There have been some instances of the organs of the State, organisations and individuals seeking to influence the media over the years. The media is entitled to a set of rights. A harmonisation of rights and responsibilities is needed for a free media to flourish.
Sensationalism is senseless. Rumour-mongering and yellow journalism are self-defeating. Information further to confirmation is the best ammunition for media, which can in turn fire the imagination of the people. On the Press Freedom Day, it would be appropriate for the media to resolve to dedicate itself to a new TRP philosophy — the promotion of Truth in a Responsible and Professional manner. All other stakeholders too need to do their bit by creating an enabling environment for such a media to flourish, as all of us have a huge stake in democracy and nation building.